Accursed Isle :
Landers drove another sliver of shell into the rotting log. The other six men watched with listless eyes, while Clark counted soundlessly.
“Fifteen,” he finished aloud. “Fifteen days since the liner went down. Lord! We’ve been on this godforsaken island only two weeks! It seems like fifteen years at least since I ate a good square meal. Mm… I think I’d give my corner lot in hell for a rare steak… with onions,” he said dreamily. “And a pile of French-fried potatoes as high as my head!”
“Shut up!” snapped Ellis savagely, scowling at the speaker. “Don’t make it no worse than it is!”
They huddled together on the white sand, seven men who would find nothing in common back there in New York, but who were welded together now to cheat their mutual foe — Death. Seven pairs of eyes stared out across the endless expanse of green-blue water to where the sun was just dipping into the sea. Landers glanced about at the group pensively. He had grown to know them well, these companions of his, during those interminable fifteen days.
In that mad chaos when the ship went down, the instinct to live had tumbled them into the little lifeboat and put out from the steamer, wallowing heavily in the angry sea. Many were lost, but the rescue freighter that cabled its nearness must have picked up most of the loaded boats. But one remained unaccounted for, Landers pondered bitterly, a boat containing seven men. They had tossed all that terrible night, with Death snatching at them from every towering billow, and when morning came the boat thumped against a jutting knoll of reef — a bare twenty feet wide, but land. They had scrambled joyously from their leaky craft to cling to the knoll, and as the sun rose higher the tide receded to reveal a small island about a square mile in area. Floating timbers and dead fish lay upon the sloping beach, and beyond in the soft mud they found a supply of food — oysters. So they waited, drinking sparingly from their two meagre kegs of water and subsisting on the shellfish; confidently at first, then hopefully, then desperately at last.
By day a flag made from their shirts flapped from the peak of the knoll to beckon chance passing ships to the rescue. By night a small signal-fire burned, fed cautiously by the driftwood salvaged from the beach when the tide went out. At the tide’s lowest ebb the seven burrowed in the soft mud for shellfish, which they piled about the signal-flag, and when the sea rose to cover all save that little knoll, they clung there together till the tide went out.
But seven men, Landers mused, cannot live indefinitely on the water in two small kegs, with shellfish as their sole item of diet. The strain was telling on them all, and each marvelled at the others efforts not to show it. Landers stared covertly at each familiar face in the fading light. There was Ogden, a bluff and good-natured riveter whose winning of a fabulous sum at the big race in Agua Caliente had sent him abroad to satisfy his longing for travel. There was Ellis, sour and petty and illiterate old Texan, whose tiny farm had miraculously spouted oil one day. There was Anderson, likable but secretive, a boy of nineteen with a hunted look that betrayed something of his reason for leaving America. There was Kenshaw, a quiet and cheerfully courageous man of middle age, a doctor bound for the Orient to experiment with Mongol fevers. There was Ritters, as short of temper as he was of stature, by his own admission “the Big Guy’s bodyguard” — the “Big Guy” being the notorious beer-baron who had probably esaped in another lifeboat. There was Clark. placid and unmoved in the face of their creeping peril, a globetrotter with an unquenchable desire to move on and a large enough inheritance to do so. And there was himself, Martin Landers, sent abroad by his firm to straighten out their Paris branch before he could return to — or send for, according to the time needed for adjustment — his wife and little son.
Oh, they all had their cherished little plans, Landers pondered bitterly — plans so effectively smashed when that fire in the liner’s hold had broken out. He sighed and tossed a used match to the signal-fire, with a glance of revulsion at the heap of oysters about the signal-flash.
“The night cometh…” murmured Dr. Kenshaw.
“Yeah,” said Ogden. “Another night.”
“Time to put on the nose-bag,” spoke up the diminutive Ritters bitterly. “Pass the pocket-knife, Landers.”
Landers tendered the short blade to the speaker. Ritters took it, muttering, and began to pry open one after another of the oyster shells. He tendered one ironically to the doctor. Kenshaw turned his had away with a grimace of repugnance.
“Oh, come, Doctor!” sneered the gunman. “The seafood at our joint is the bat in town!”
Ogden spat disgustedly.
“Better take it, sir,” the quiet boy at Kenshaw’s left urged. “Have to eat… something, you know.”
The doctor nodded slowly and forced himself to swallow the mollusc, gagging as he did so.
“None for me!” said Ellis vehemently. “Think I’d rather starve, if it’s the same to you.” He glowered at Landers sullenly.
Landers returned the look with the dislike of a good sport for a squawker.
“I still think we oughta try for it,” Ellis grumbled. “We must be just off the track of the steamers, and we’re sure to run into one sooner or later. Why stick here on this rotten two-by-four island?”
“You know it would be suicide. Ellis,” Landers said without emotion. “The boat sprang a slow leak when we hit the reef. But even if we could plug it up, it would mean leaving our food supply. And how can we know how soon a ship—”
“Well, our water supply is gettin’ low,” reminded the Texan ominously. “If we ain’t picked up soon…”
“Aw, go to sleep!” growled Clark. who was already stretched out on the rocks beyond the tide-line. “Who’s the sentry tonight?”
“I am,” replied Anderson hesitantly “First half, that is, and Ogden relieves me.”
“Well, mind you don’t go to sleep on us like you done last time.” Ellis turned his ill-feeling on the youth. “Like as not you let a ship pass.”
The boy’s face in the flickering firelight looked distressed.
“Aw, pipe down!” growled Ogden. The kid’s a bare nineteen — he couldn’t help fallin’ asleep.” He yawned noisily, flopped on the sand. and closed his eyes. In a moment he was asleep like a healthy animal. At length all of them sprawled about the small fire, far enough away to escape its heat in the sultry night, yet near enough to be out of the water when the tide rose. Only Anderson sat up, staring into the dark. There was no sound save the lapping of the waves on the bath, the intermittent crackle of the fire, the heavy breathing of the sleepers. The boy strained to pierce the blackness ahead, scanned the unseen waters for a glimpse of a passing ship; but only the distant stars met his roving gaze.
The lapping of the waves was infinitely soothing. Anderson nodded, jerked awake, nodded again. He rose once to pile more wood on the dying fire, sat back down and dozed once more. Once a muffled gasping sound started him from sleep. but he reminded himself that it could only be one of his companions having a nightmare. His head sank slowly upon his chest. The next he knew, Ogden’s kindly face bent above him tolerantly, bidding him to lie down and sleep. The youth curled up where he sat and slept at once.
Excited voices roused him, and someone shaking him violently. His waking thought was that a ship had seen their signal-fire; but Ogden’s face, bent above him, held no elation — rather a fixed horror.
“It’s Ellis!” he rasped. “He’s dead! Something slipped up on him in the night and… and tore out his throat.” He finished in a rush of words.
The men were surrounding something that lay just beyond the water’s edge in the dim grey light of dawn. Clark whistled soundlessly, looked away. Kenshaw was kneeling, examining the still form for any remaining signs of life.
“He’s done for,” he reported quietly. Landers was bending over the body also, and as Kenshaw looked up their eyes met and held significantly.
“Some sea-monster, I guess,” the doctor added rapidly. “Anybody know the funeral service?”
No one did.
“Well, we’ll have to bury him, anyway… out here,” He gestured towards the open sea. “Some of you bail out the boat so we can row out a piece…”
When they rowed back from the makeshift burial at sea, the little island had grown. They made the boat fast and threw themselves on the wet sand. No one spoke. They merely sat there, silent and shaken, until the tide ebbed. The task of gathering driftwood and delving for oysters broke the spell at last, however, and they spoke again in natural tones. The day crept by at a maddening pace, and it was night again.
“My watch, isn’t it?” Landers spoke, driving another sliver of shell into the log. “Clark, you’re my relief.” Clark nodded, swallowing an oyster with a wry face.
They curled up at last and slept. Landers squatted beside the fire, staring out into the dark and praying in his unpractised way for that precious blaze of light that would be a rocket from a passing ship. Once he thought he heard a movement behind him in the darkness. He tried to peer into the engulfing shadow beyond the aura from the fire. A swishing sound came from the other side of the island.
Landers stood up and took a step in that direction, but there was nothing to see, and the sound did not come again. He sat down heavily, with a shrug of his square shoulders.
“Couldn’t have been,” he muttered half aloud. “I’m crazy… but… Kenshaw noticed it too… aw, we’re both crazy!”
Landers had learned to mark the hour by the creeping of the tide up the sloping beach. He stood up, yawning, and advanced to the group, lying as Far as possible from the fire — for the night was stifling. He checked off the sleepers. Kenshaw — Ogden — Anderson — Ritter… Ellis? He caught himself glancing out to sea, and laughed nervously. Clark … but where was Clark? Landers went over the group again, but Clark was not among them.
“Clark!” Landers called softly. Then, when the call smote upon silence, “Clark?” he called more loudly. There was no answer. He raised his voice to a shout. The sleepers mumbled softly and sat up, one by one.
“What the devil!” grumbled Ogden. “Can’t you wake him without gettin’ the rest of us up?”
Landers’s face in the firelight looked strained. Again he met Kenshaw’s eyes queerly. “He’s not here. I can’t make him hear me…. Oh, Clark!” he bellowed loudly. But there was no reply.
“Do you suppose…” breathed Anderson, and stopped. But they knew what he had meant to say.
“I don’t know,” muttered the doctor. “Landers, light a stick of wood. We’ll search the island….”
They found him not far from the fire. His glassy eyes gleamed in the torchlight, and his throat was horrible to see.
“It got him, too!” breathed Miters. “What if it—”
“Has anybody a gun?” asked Kenshaw quietly. Once more his eyes met Landers’s, but he glanced away quickly. “This simply means that whoever keeps watch will have to be armed… and keep close guard on the sleepers.”
But no one had a gun. There was no weapon at all, it seemed, except the short pocket-knife they used to open oysters.
They buried Clark as they had done Ellis before him. The round of sentries had to be rearranged now, with those two missing. Ogden and the doctor were chosen after a short dispute, and another night was marked on Landers’s log-calendar with a bit of shell.
Ogden huddled beside the fire, armed with the pocket-knife, eyes straining to pierce the darkness beyond the firelight. At every small stir made by the sleepers he would start violently and glance this way and that in apprehension. Once he started to cry out, for he thought he saw something move among the sleeping forms a few yards away. But it was only one of his companions who had stood up and was moving slowly towards the fire. Ogden turned his had and stared again into the darkness our to era, begrudging any moment he was not on the look-out for a passing ship. At that moment something tight and strong clutched his throat. The sentry tried to cry out. but only an inarticulate gurgle issued from his mouth. He was thrown violently to the cold sand… and then spinning lights and darkness fell upon him. Kenshaw,, rising at dawn, found him limp beside the dead fire, throat hideously mangled as Ellis’s and Clark’s had been. He woke the remaining three men, face very white, eyes wide with a fixed horror that seemed incongruous in a doctor — who knows all men can know of death.
“Landers,” he spoke in a hushed whisper, “no sea-monster killed Ogden. Look! Look at those bruises on his neck!” He pointed a shaking finger at the thing on the sand, and expelled a shuddering sigh.
Landers met his eye sharply, and nodded.
“I noticed it before.” he said quietly. And you did, too. But I thought I must be mad…”
Kenshaw stared at the signal-flag unseeingly. “I should have told him. But… I thought… unless we were very sure… it was a horrible thing to say.”
“What? What is it?” chattered the youth Anderson, glancing nervously from the doctor’s face to Landers’s. “What about the bruises?” “Fingers,” said Landers abruptly. “A man’s fingers. And his throat” — he brought out with a great effort — “human teeth.”
“Savages?” croaked Anderson, sickly green of Face.
“We all know,” Landers spoke tonelessly, “that there is no living thing on this island but ourselves.” He paused and took a deep breath. “It was one of us.”
Kenshaw gave a shuddering sigh and turned his eyes out towards the open sea. Anderson could only stare frozenly at the speaker. Ritters snorted.
“You’re crazy,” he said with vehemence. “One of us? Which one? Me, I guess.’ He laughed shortly. “I’ve knocked off many a guy,” he told them grimly, after a silence, “but not that way…”
“No, no!” Anderson found his voice at last in an hysterical bleat. “No man could do that… it’s… its too horrible to think about.”
“No man in his right mind. son,” the doctor spoke gently. But hunger — the insatiable longing for food, for meat — and monotony and death staring him in the face, can do awful things to a man’s reason. The ancients called it ‘possession’ — they’d say a demon entered one of our bodies and forced it to do things we could never in our senses do. We would call it — I hardly know what. Cannibalism… homicidal mania, accompanied by lapse of memory. The seizure seems to come on after nightfall—it’s a queer case — but whoever it is doesn’t remember anything about it when he… after it’s over.”
“But… it’s hideous!” Anderson’s eyes were dilated with horror. “It may be… me!” He began to sob suddenly like a terrified child. “What can we do?… What can we do?” he wailed.
“Steady, son,” Kenshaw laid a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Don’t let it get you — don’t think about it, or we’ll all go mad,” he jerked out. “We must just… watch one another… every minute.”
There was no dispute as to sentry-duty that night. No one thought of sleeping. They sat in a group about the fire, in strained silence. each cold with fear of what one of them might suddenly become — of what he himself might become. Ritters produced a pair of dice, forgotten since the wreck, and they gambled for pebbles in desperation for something to keep them from thinking.
It must have been about midnight that the ship passed. They saw its light and began yelling wildly, piling more wood on the signal-fire, trying to beat out a code message with two stones. But the ship passed on without heeding them. They ran about the island frantically then, weeping and cursing… until Kenshaw’s low cry brought them to their senses again. He was pointing to something that lay in the water at the island’s far edge.
“Anderson!” he groaned. “Poor kid!” The remaining three men stared at one another woodenly. “Did anyone… watch me the whole time?” the doctor demanded.
Landers and Ritters shook their heads. In the frenzied excitement over the ship’s passing they had each forgotten the horror that hung over them like a dark cloud. And then suddenly Landers pointed to a dark spot on Ritters’ soiled shirt-front. Kenshaw leaped forward and grasped the gunman by the arm. The small man turned deathly white.
“You … you mean… it was me?” choked Ritters. “How… how—”
Landers grasped his other arm and indicated the stained shirt in grim triumph. “Blood on your shirt, Ritters. It’s the first trace that has been left… after… You got it there when you… Anderson,” he mercifully left the words unsaid.
“Naw!” Ritters whispered desperately. “That ain’t how I got it there! Look! I scratched my chest carrying wood to the fire… aw, hey, you can’t think that I—”
“We can’t take the chance, man,” said Landers firmly. “We’re going to tie you up until a ship comes.” Ritters stared at them sickly. “Don’t take it so — you didn’t know. Couldn’t help it. You’re a sick man….” They trussed him hand and foot with their belts and bound him to a jutting bit of reef despite his pleas. And that night they slept without fear.
But morning brought a torrent of deeper horror than before rushing upon them. Ritters, bound and helpless as a baby, was the fifth victim. Like the rest, he stared glassily at the sky, throat mangled as by the fangs of a wolf.
Landers met the doctor’s frozen gaze grimly. “Well, Kenshaw,” he spoke without inflection, “it’s between us now.”
Horror blazed in the doctor’s eyes. “It’s… unthinkable,” he muttered. “One of us. You… or me.” His lips twitched violently. “Steady,” Landers gripped his arm hard. “Don’t let it get you, Doc. There is still another possibility — someone else hidden on the island in some cave we haven’t found.” But both men knew that, when the tide came in, any living creature that might be on the island must crouch with them on the small rise, or drown.
The day seemed winged, so much did they dread the coming of night. As the tide receded they went about their task of gathering driftwood and digging for oysters. They talked incessantly, as though they feared the silence that swooped upon them when they ceased speaking. And as the sun sank below the horizon, the two survivors began to watch each other with increasing nervousness.
“I’ll take this load of wood to the knoll.” The doctor spoke with studied calm, squinting at the rim of sun above the sea-line. “Shall I open the oysters?” Landers nodded and handed him the pocket-knife.
What happened next was too quickly done for the eye to follow. With a quick snake-like gesture Kenshaw slashed his left wrist well to the bone, translated the blade, and slashed his right wrist in like manner. Landers sprang forward with a cry, but his companion smiled stonily and waved him back. Blood spurted from the gashes over the doctor’s muscular hands — hands so skilful at the staunching of blood — and dripped upon the white sand where he stood.
“I couldn’t stand it, old man — I’m sorry,” he spoke quietly, and as Landers began to rip his soiled handkerchief into strips, “No, no! Don’t try to staunch it — it wouldn’t do any good. I’ve severed the arteries. It was the most painless way out.”
Landers passed a shaking hand over his moist forehead. “How could you do a thing like that. Kenshaw?” he groaned. “There must be some other way out-”
Dr. Kenshaw shook his head gravely. “This is the only way, Landers. You see that – I know.2 He was breathing hard as blood pumped from the gashes at every beat of his heart. He sank to the sand weakly, a bitter little smile curving his lips. “I couldn’t stand to know,” he gasped. “And we’d have found out sooner or later…. One of us … would know. And” — he sank upon his back, unable to support himself longer – “I couldn’t take that knowledge into eternity with me, Landers. I’d rather die… not knowing … couldn’t stand to know… I… was the… last man…” His voice trailed to a weak whisper, died away.
A familiar sound rose suddenly from the silence. Landers stood frozen with incredulity for a moment; then he whipped about and stared out to sea. In the dim twilight the clumsy form of a freighter was passing close to the island. Landers forgot the dying man, forgot everything in that instant of insane joy. He lit the signal-fire quickly and piled it high with wood that the scorching sun had dried. He waved his arms and screamed frantically, snatched up the flag and waved it aloft, waded waist-deep into the sea in foolish anxiety. But the ship had sighted their white flag and already a boat was putting out from her towards the island.
Landers stumbled back to the doctor’s side, sobbing with relief. He lifted the prone figure and shook Kenshaw violently, shouting the miracle over and over. But Dr. Kenshaw could not hear. The open knife was still clutched in his limp hand.
As the truth became apparent, a slow horror crept over Landers. chilling him to the soul. In that one madly joyous moment of seeing the rescue ship, he had forgotten something — something that swept over him now like an icy tide. One of them — himself or the dead man at his feet — had hideously murdered five men, had torn out the throats of his five companions like a ravening beast. One of them — but which one? Which one?
Landers passed a trembling hand over his eyes. An impulse seized him to shout a warning to that approaching boat, to scream at them to go back and leave him there to die.
But suppose it was Kenshaw, lying now in a pool of his own blood shed in retribution for those five unthinkable crimes? Then he, Landers, had a right to go back and live among men. But… suppose it was not the doctor? Suppose he, Martin Landers, had sated his craving for meat by hideously slaughtering those five men? He thought of the coming night, on board the rescue freighter. He saw in imagination a stark figure — perhaps even one of those cheerfully waving men in the approaching boat — stretched out on a bloody deck, his throat mangled as by the teeth of a savage beast.
For there was no way he could be sure this madness would leave him — if, indeed, he was the man-monster — after he had left this accursed island. And home again, with an open door leading to little Marty’s crib, to Helen’s bed beside it… Landers groaned aloud. And even if those terrible seizures came upon him no more — there were still Ellis… Clark… Ogden… Anderson… Ritters.
Once more he glanced at the lifeless form at his feet. Yes, Kenshaw had taken the only way out. In any event, the doctor would have been killed or left with the mute evidence of a sixth mangled corpse — and, either way, death was the only answer. If only he had stayed the knife-blow a few minutes longer until the freighter blew her signal of rescue! But no — the fact would still have remained that one of them… one of them… Yet if the madness returned they would have caught the maniac on the ship, chained him like the wild thing he was, and the other man could have gone free. But now…
Landers stared dully at the oncoming boat. He could see the men’s faces now, smiling encouragement, could hear their yells of reassurance. A bleak smile twisted his mouth.
“I’m the last man,” he said aloud. “The last of seven.” Cowardly of Kenshaw to leave him with that black question hanging over his head! It came to him clearly, like a sentence ofdeath, that he could never know… unless at the cost of another poor devil’s life. Landers bent slowly, loosened the pocket-knife from Kenshaw’s limp fingers.
“Ahoy. mate!” shouted a man standing in the prow of the lifeboat. “We’re a-comin’!”
Landers did not return the greeting. He tested the discoloured blade in his hand with a calloused thumb. It was not very sharp — but sharp enough…